25 January 2015

In deep snow above Niederrickenbach

Time: 3 hours
Grading: WT2
Height gain: 420 metres
Height loss: 420 metres

Niederrickenbach – Ahorn – Brändlisboden – Hüethütte – Alpboden - Niederrickenbach
Since moving to central Switzerland, I have been very hesitant to join group hikes, being very unsure of myself when it comes to understanding the local dialect. But I don’t want to waste another Sunday indoors and so, despite a weather forecast that gives very little hope of anything more than cloud, I decided to sign up for a guided snowshoe tour organised by the tourist office in Niederrickenbach, halfway between Lucerne and Engelberg. The three-hour climb to the Brisenhaus hut for lunch looks interesting, and a day’s total immersion in Swiss German will not do me any harm either.

It has snowed overnight, and the streets of Lucerne are covered in a thin white blanket. A 20-minute ride in a train packed with tourists going to Engelberg, then a short climb by cable car brings me to the tranquil village of Niederrickenbach, its convent and few houses strung out along the side of the valley at an altitude of 1162 metres. It has snowed heavily here, and it’s foggy… these two things will remain constant throughout the day. Our guide informs us that he has to change the day’s programme: so much fresh snow and so little visibility make the 600-metre climb to the Brisenhaus out of the question. Instead, he proposes us a circular walk through quiet, snowy fields and woods. It sounds like a good alternative.

Our group of ten sets off gently uphill, the two at the front ploughing their way through the deep, powdery snow, the others following more easily in their tracks. We climb to the edge of a forest where huge sycamores compete with equally huge conifers to see which can be more picture-postcard wintry. Three days of freezing fog have dressed the needles of the conifers in a shimmering coat of transparent crystals, with the overnight snow adding the finishing touch.

Just before the Alpine farm at Ahorn, we veer off to the right and drop steeply down into a little valley, where we cross a frozen stream on a wooden bridge. Beside the path, thousands of icy stalactites hang from wires between fence posts. A steep but short climb brings us back out of the valley into more open country where, for the first and only time during the day, a cold wind gets up to remind us that we are in the depths of winter… not that we really needed reminding, given the general appearance of the landscape! Occasionally, other groups of snowshoers or skiers emerge from the fog, greet us as they cross our path, then disappear back into the shadows.

We have been climbing steadily, and now reach the chalets of Brändlisboden at 1420 metres. Here we stop for a quick lunch of sandwiches and hot tea, eaten standing up and in a bit of a hurry, so as not to get cold. A couple on snowshoes go by, followed by a small, very floppy dog that seems to be having great fun despite disappearing completely into the snow at every step. Our guide talks about the local mountains, the danger of avalanches, the weather, and I find myself able to understand a lot more of what he is saying than I expected. Knowing something about the subject matter definitely helps.

In thicker fog and flurries of snow, we continue uphill to the highest point of the walk, a snowy, tree-covered crest at about 1460 metres, where the branches of the overhanging trees have been captured in a complete covering of frost and snow. Downhill now to the Hüethütte, 1415 m, where we pause for more hot tea in the middle of a little cluster of farm buildings.

Now comes the most adventurous part of the walk; a descent down into the unseen depths of the valley below. Steeply downhill across fields first, in deep, perfect powder snow. Then, crossing a line of trees between fields, we continue somewhat more gently downhill, following the edge of the forest until we reach Alpboden, at 1238 metres. From here, it’s an easy walk along a forest track back to our starting point, with a few shortcuts thrown in by our guide for good measure. As we reach our destination, the clouds part to reveal a small square of blue sky... maybe we should have started three hours later!

It would have been nice to finish with a mug of mulled wine in the restaurant at Niederrickenbach, but the place is packed full and there is no room for a group of ten. Despite this, despite the fog and the downscaled itinerary, it has been a very enjoyable little walk in a mysterious, fairytale frozen landscape.

10 January 2015

The towers of Lucerne

Time: 0.5 hours
Height gain: 50 metres
Height loss: 50 metres

Tourists flock to Lucerne from all over the world for its old town, lake and covered wooden bridges (though for some reason, the bridge that is a modern reconstruction attracts them more than the genuinely old one). Slightly less known are the city walls and the nine towers strung out along them. To walk the full length of the walls only takes half an hour, so this will certainly be the shortest walk ever described on this site! We are definitely in after-lunch stroll territory rather than hike territory here.

I was not expecting the weather to be quite so special today, and consequently did not make any plans to go to the mountains. But after a morning spent doing dull but sometimes necessary things with washing machines and shopping trolleys, the allure of the sun is too strong after lunch. Around about midday, the thermometer in my car indicates 18 degrees, which is simply insane for the tenth of January.

I walk from home to the riverbank, which I follow westwards until I come to the bridge that leads to the start of the city wall. Ahead of me is the first tower, the Nölliturm, behind which I can see the battlemented wall running up towards the following towers. Each tower seems to have its own little quirks: the defining feature of Tower No. 1 is that it is round, unlike all the others which are square.

Tower No. 1
Behind the Nölliturm, steep steps zigzag up a grassy bank to Tower No. 2, standing out almost white against the very blue sky. The main structure is square, but is topped with two little round turrets, on one of which stands a figure of a man holding a blue and white Lucerne flag, this no doubt giving the tower its name of Männliturm. 

Tower No. 2
 Tower No. 3 comes very soon after, as the gradient eases. This one is different in shape again, with a tall pointed spire sitting on top of the stonework. It has something about it, which suggests a child’s drawing of a haunted house, especially when seen as a silhouette, looking back into the afternoon sun.

Tower No. 3
Now I have reached the highest point of my short stroll. To the left of the wall, the ground is flat and is occupied by a school playing field where local teenagers are playing football and basketball. There is a short athletics track here as well, an odd thing to find in the shadow of 16th-century battlements.

Tower No. 4 is perhaps the most extravagant of the nine, its stone base surmounted by a sloping tiled roof, into which are inset several little dormer windows, painted red. On top of all this is a hexagonal spire, also painted red, and the whole thing is finished off with a roof that tapers elegantly off to a very fine point.

Tower No. 4
From my angle of approach, the roof of Tower No. 5 has an asymmetric appearance, seeming to have been chopped off on the side facing the river and the town below. This is explained by the clock incorporated into that side of the tower, not visible from here but a well-known landmark when seen from various points in town.

Tower No. 5
The builders seem to have run out of imagination beyond this point, as the next few towers all look as though they were built from the same template. Towers 6 and 7 are definitely identical twins, only distinguishable by the archway that takes my route down through Tower 6 and back to the inside of the city wall. On the town side, this tower is decorated with painted blue and white flags, all at different angles to each other, a nice touch of madness.

Towers 6 and 7
Tower 6 seen from the other side
At its eastern end, the wall and towers get a bit lost in between the big houses and school buildings that line the pretty Museggstrasse. Tower 7, the Pulverturm (or gunpowder tower) sits up high above the street at the back of a courtyard, but is not accessible. 

Tower No. 7
 I miss Tower No. 8 completely, it must be hidden somewhere behind a larger building. Dropping down now towards the city centre and the lakeside, the street passes through another arch, taking me back outside the wall again. Just beyond here, the final tower, No. 9 is just visible off to the right, poking up above the roofs of the houses.

The visible part of Tower No. 9
I continue my walk along the lakeside promenade, where the good weather has brought the whole town out for a Saturday afternoon walk. The sun is genuinely hot; people are walking dogs and pushing pushchairs in shirtsleeves. There are people sitting by the water with picnics, a group of teenagers with guitars singing, while their friend uses a box as an improvised drum kit. Away beyond the lake, the Rigi is completely snow-free; it is hard to imagine that only ten days ago, I returned from my Christmas holidays in a blizzard. Another change is coming though: the wind is getting up, and large flying-saucer clouds indicate stormy conditions at higher altitude. By the transport museum, a boy is feeding a flock of gulls, holding a piece of bread out for them to take on the wing. The gulls are battling madly against the wind, beating their wings at full speed just to remain stationary long enough to grab a piece of crust.

Then the later afternoon sun dips behind the Pilatus, and suddenly it feels much colder. A day of unexpected spring in early January has been a pleasant bonus, but the forecast tells me that by this time tomorrow, the temperature will be 15 degrees lower and it may well be snowing again!

01 January 2015

New Year’s wanderings around Heiligkreuz

Time: 3.5 hours
Grading: WT1
Height gain: 510 metres
Height loss: 510 metres

Heiligkreuz – First – Längegg - Heiligkreuz

It has been a full three months since I was last in the mountains. At the end of September, I spent a wonderful weekend enjoying the sun on the Sunnig Grat and crossing the Rot Grätli pass… then succumbed to a complete loss of motivation, allowing the fog that covered the lowlands to sap all my enthusiasm despite the knowledge that it was sunny higher up. I completely missed one of the best late autumns on record, having far too many Sunday morning lie-ins for my own physical and mental health. A new year now though, with New Year’s resolutions to be kept or broken, and one of those resolutions is to get back into a more regular hiking routine.

The year has started with a decent covering of snow across the whole country. I left for the UK on the Sunday before Christmas in temperatures worthy of April or early May, but returned a week later in a blizzard, with sub-zero temperatures all the way down from the Channel Tunnel to Lucerne. This first day of the year looked to be the best of the week for outdoor activities, after the last snowstorms cleared and before the arrival of warmer, rainy weather. I am therefore slightly miffed to wake up to grey skies and poor visibility. Will it be sunny higher up? There’s only one way to find out.

After a three-month rest from pretty much any physical activity, I have decided to keep it easy for this New Year’s Day hike. A simple, four-hour snowshoe crossing from Heiligkreuz in the Entlebuch valley to Flühli in the Emmental, with only about 350 metres of uphill walking, looks just right for the occasion. I catch the train to Entlebuch, from where a yellow Post Office minibus takes me up a very pretty, snow-covered road to Heiligkreuz. As I had been hoping, we break through the cloud cover almost immediately after leaving the station, emerging into a fairy-tale landscape of sparkling, snow and ice-covered trees against a cloudless, deep blue sky.

Heiligkreuz, at an altitude of 1128 metres, is a tiny village that consists of a church, a restaurant, a large building that seems to be some kind of convalescent home for nuns, and not much else. The village’s solitary ski-lift is doing good business with local families, tiny children whizzing down the slopes at high speed, their motorcycle-style helmets making them all look like Olympic champions in miniature.

The walk begins with the day’s main climb, steeply uphill alongside the ski slope. The blizzard through which I drove two days ago may have been impressive, but in the grand scheme of things it has only just brought enough snow to the ski slopes, and there are places where the grass is showing through. As always with the first hike after Christmas, I find the going tough: too many mince pies and turkey sandwiches, too much beer and far too much wine have all left me feeling heavy and unfit. Two hundred metres higher and 45 minutes later, the path reaches the crest of the ridge, which I will now be following for the next part of the walk. Still walking alongside the ski piste, I soon reach my first summit of 2015, a 1467-metre hump most appropriately called First. A waft of chips announces the presence of a mountain restaurant, strategically placed to catch the skiers coming off the top of the ski lift.

Beyond here, the ski infrastructure gives way very abruptly to unspoilt nature, and suddenly I am completely alone, plodding along the crest of the ridge, following a good track that has been made through the powdery snow by yesterday’s snowshoers. Little huts with snow-covered roofs nestle in hollows, while higher, craggy mountains across the valley add drama to the background.

Solitude I
Solitude II
Now though, my plan starts to go wrong. The tracks veer off to the right, towards the Farneren, a steep, 1572-metre hill that looms up ahead. Apparently this was the destination of all the people who have been this way since it snowed. My route, as described in my Swiss Alpine Club guidebook, should take me off to the left, across to the farmhouse at Längegg, then on down to the Finishütte and the valley beyond. Nobody has been that way though, to the left is only a vast expanse of deep, virgin snow. I am going to have to re-think the rest of my hike: I really do not fancy spending the next two or three hours ploughing through knee-deep powder snow. In a group it would be fine, we could take it in turns to do the hard work of opening the route. But alone and unfit after the holidays, it feels like a bit too much.

I decide to follow the main track: after all, if everyone else has been up the Farneren, maybe I can do it too. A first, very steep climb in deep snow leaves me out of breath, but brings the reward of another panoramic ridge-top and more spectacular views south-westwards. The path drops down a little, then begins the final climb to the Farneren’s summit. It’s all a bit too steep though, and my over-cautious nature when walking alone tells me to look for other alternatives.

Solitude III
Looking eastwards, I can see the farmhouse at Längegg not very far away. There are no tracks leading to it, but I can see what looks like a snowshoe trail behind the house: maybe I will be able to get back onto my initially planned route this way. An easy, slightly downhill traverse across slopes of deep, virgin snow soon brings me to the farmhouse, where I also hope to find a nice sunny bench to sit on for lunch. Unfortunately though, the chalet is occupied: it looks like the farmer’s family has come up to see in the New Year in the mountains. Someone has traced a huge “2015” in the snow on the hillside above the chalet, and what I thought were snowshoe tracks turn out to be simply the footprints of all the coming and going around the house. In the direction I want to go, southwards towards the Finishütte, once again there are no tracks at all.

It looks like I will have to resign myself to going back the way I came. First of all though, I need to find a spot for lunch. I follow a line of trees, keeping close to their trunks where the snow is less deep, although this has the disadvantage of giving me a few unwanted showers as melting snow falls from the branches above. Soon I find a sunny spot where the wind has removed most of the snow from a grassy hummock, and I spend a pleasant half an hour there with home made leek and potato soup, a ham and mustard sandwich and a cheese and Branston pickle one to follow.

Next year's Christmas card?
I retrace my steps back to the place where the tracks veered off from my planned route towards the Farneren. From here, I can see a possible way of avoiding the need to go all the way back over the top of the First: I can definitely drop down into the little valley to my right, then follow the southern flank of the hill northwards to rejoin the ridge later. It proves to be a pretty option, but a very tiring one. Although the way is obvious – a snow-covered farm track leads in exactly the right direction – there are no tracks, so I once again find myself slogging through fresh snow. The snow has changed as well: this morning it was light and powdery, but the afternoon sun has transformed it, and now it has become compact and heavy. Perfect for making snowmen, not so great for wading through. Before long, I have a niggling ache in my right groin, where a muscle is being asked to do things that it doesn’t normally have to. By the time I make it back to the ridge beyond the summit of First, this has become quite sore. I had thought about walking all the way back down to the station at Entlebuch, but I wisely decide against this, and simply retrace my steps back down alongside the ski slopes to Heiligkreuz. I have 45 minutes to wait for the bus, and spend them over an Apfelschorle in the busy bar of the restaurant, where mums and dads are recovering from a day of supervising five-year-old future Olympic downhill champions.

I am alone in the minibus back down to the station: no wonder it only runs every two hours, in fact it’s amazing that it runs at all. It has not been a wholly satisfying day: I didn’t do what I had planned, and I don’t like “there and back the same way” walks. Still, it has served a purpose: I have broken my lazy sequence and have got the year off to an active start. May it continue in the same vein. 

28 September 2014

Over the Rot Grätli from Bannalp to Engelberg

Time: 5.5 hours
Grading: T3
Height gain: 1045 metres
Height loss: 1160 metres

Bannalp – Bannalper Schonegg – Rot Grätli – Rugghubelhütte - Ristis

Ever since I first visited Bannalp three years ago, the route from there over the Rot Grätli to Engelberg has figured high on my to-do list. On that occasion in September 2011 my friend and I were tempted, but having already done a tough walk the previous day and wanting to ascend Chaiserstuel, we opted for the easier descent down towards Isenthal. Now though, a chance mention of Bannalp during a coffee-break conversation about mountain lakes suddenly brings the idea back to the forefront of my mind. On the train returning from the previous day's hike to the Sunnig Grat, I decide to abandon my initial plan to go to the Emmental on Sunday, and set my sights on this walk instead.

The Rot Grätli is not known to be an especially easy hike, with a level of difficulty variously listed as T3 or T4, depending on which reports you read and which maps you look at. I am fully aware that I will encounter snow and passages where I will need to use my hands, and suspect that it may all be a bit too much for me and that I will probably end up ingloriously turning back. Not to worry though, I have already had one excellent day's walking this weekend and am prepared to take the risk of having to modify my Sunday plans on the fly if it gets too difficult.

One of the many great things about living in Lucerne is that you can get a train at eight in the morning and be at somewhere like Bannalp, way up in the mountains, by nine. I get up at seven, have a quick breakfast, a rather chilly seven-minute walk to the station, buy a coffee and am still sitting on the 8:10 to Engelberg several minutes before it is due to leave. The train is crowded: half of my carriage is taken up with a big group of Japanese tourists, the other half with noisily chattering walkers and climbers. Opposite me, one girl stands out from the crowd: bare feet up on the seat, one ankle bandaged with bright green strapping, no hiking gear, listening to music on headphones, she looks totally out of place among all the people kitted out in mountain gear. Later in the morning, I will unexpectedly see her again and realise that she too was very much part of the outdoor crowd.

At Wolfenschiessen, almost everyone except for the barefoot girl and the Japanese tourists gets off the train. The post bus waiting outside the station looks totally inadequate for the number of passengers; all the seats are already taken. Somehow – I do not really know how – everyone manages to get on, and we set off for the thankfully short ride up the winding road to Oberrickenbach, packed in like sardines. By virtue of being one of the last to get on the bus, I am one of the first off, which gives me a lucky advantage in terms of being in the right place in the queue for the cable car up to Bannalp. The ten-minute cable car ride is quite an experience: a long first stretch that climbs painfully slowly up a high cliff face towards what appears to be the top… but above that initial cliff, the car goes over a pylon and continues for a long time up an almost equally steep slope, almost brushing the branches of the conifers below. It is not for the faint-hearted.

Looking down on the Bannalpsee
All of this has taken me no more than an hour, and by 9:15 I am ready to start walking. The weather does not seem to have quite attained yesterday's sheer perfection: it's a degree or two cooler, there is a slight breeze and wispy cirrus clouds in the sky suggest that things may start to change over the next day or two. It's still pretty good though, with the same incredible quality of light as yesterday. The path climbs slowly at first, passing below the cables of a ski-lift and above the Chrüzhütte, where the smell of a wood-burning fire and smoke from the chimney suggests that the night was chilly up here. I repeatedly overtake and am overtaken by a couple who were sitting next to me on the train, as we stop for photos, drinks and rests. Down below, the Bannalpsee is still in the shadow of the Walenstöcke, an impressive wall of rock that bounds the valley on its southern side. The path has been considerably improved since my last visit: back then, the last section up to the saddle at Bannalper Schonegg was an awkward, cattle-churned, eroded mess, but the path has been reconstructed and is now much easier underfoot. Although I am deliberately going slowly to save myself for the challenges ahead I make good progress, and after an hour and a quarter am already at Bannalper Schonegg, at an altitude of 2250 metres. Five hundred metres uphill in 75 minutes is not bad going at all.

At Bannalper Schonegg
I stop here to drink and to eat some dried fruit and nuts before starting the more challenging part of the walk. I ask a woman coming the other way if there are any real difficulties – a pointless question of course, as the notion of difficulty is entirely subjective. There is some snow at the top of the pass, she tells me, but the sun is already on it and has softened it, making it easy and safe to cross.

I set off again along a narrow path that runs downhill at first crossing steep slopes of grey scree above a stony valley. Gradually the landscape becomes wilder as the path drops down into a grassy bowl surrounded by cliffs and snowfields below the summits of the Ruchstock and Hasenstock. The path appears to be heading for a steep gully between these two peaks: I hope that the way ahead is not up there and an very relieved when it swings to the left, towards easier-looking ground.

The landscape becomes wilder... the path climbs up below the mountain on the left of the picture
The grassy floor of this impressive place is the last vegetation I will see for a while. As I begin the 300-metre climb up towards the Rot Grätli, the last traces of grass give way to an entirely mineral landscape, a desert of dark grey rocks and rubble. Red and white paint flashes mark the way and need to be followed carefully, for there is little or no trace of any path here. In foggy conditions, you would need to be very attentive to the waymarks, as it would be easy to miss the path and get completely lost in the stony wilderness. The path, such as it is, now seems to be heading round into another valley, as yet unseen. I climb up between boulders at the base of cliffs, turn a shoulder of the mountain and reach a flatter area at about 2400 metres, where the way ahead becomes more easily identifiable. Large, flat boulders make this a natural place for a rest and another intake of food and drink, and I am not the only person who stops here.

The Rot Grätli comes into view
Setting off southwards again, now I can see all the way up the valley to the Rot Grätli, the pass over which I will have to cross if I am to reach Engelberg later in the day. The landscape looks inhospitable; the valley runs up across black slabs towards the twin summits of the Engelberger Rotstock and the Hasenstock, its upper left-hand side covered by a large snowfield or possibly the last remnants of an old glacier. The valley gradually rises in a series of rocky steps until it reaches the final slope of snow running up to the ridge that connects the two summits: this ridge is the Rot Grätli. Ridiculously intimidated by this landscape, I find myself slowing right down, as though to put off the inevitable moment when I will come up against some impassable obstacle and be forced to turn back in panic. And yet the route cannot be so difficult: there are plenty of people coming down the other way, including quite a few families with children of no more than eight or nine. I reach the first of the rock steps, maybe two metres high, where a fixed rope helps me haul myself up the smooth, black surface to the flatter ground above. 

Fixed ropes facilitate the way up several rocky steps
Down the valley towards me, moving at a speed which I would never have believed possible in such rough terrain, comes a trail-runner. As the runner gets closer, hopping over rocks and dodging obstacles, I realise that it is the bare-footed girl from the train, no longer barefoot of course, but instantly recognisable from her clothing and the green strapping around her ankle. She smiles as she dashes past, then is off away down the path and out of sight. She must have stayed on the train to Engelberg and now, just two hours later, has already completed almost three quarters of a route that will take me close to six hours altogether… most impressive.

As I get closer to the valley head, the going becomes steeper. The landscape is a jumble of slabs and boulders, in which it seems unlikely that any route could work its way up to the ridge. Appearances can be deceptive though, and the path remains unexpectedly easy, never in any way exposed, twisting and turning around boulders and shoulders of rock. Easily-angled ledges are used to gain height until finally, I stand at the foot of the only real challenge I will face, a rocky chimney some four or five metres high, which has to be climbed. This is decision time: my golden rule is always "don't go up something that you would not be able to get back down", and this chimney looks close to that limit. What sways me in the direction of continuing is the fact that the ridge is only a few metres above me now, and I can see that the terrain above the chimney is less steep. Up I go, using a fixed rope to help me, and very soon I have passed the obstacle with no real difficulty. Only a few zigzags over shaly ground and the final snowfield remain, and the snowfield proves to be easy, its gradient such that a slip would have no more serious consequences than a wet bottom. Even so, I would say that this is an end-of-season route, as the last hundred metres or so would be a more serious prospect earlier in the summer, with more snow to contend with.

The most challenging part of the route

Almost there
Three hours after leaving the cable car at Bannalp, I reach the 2559-metre crest of the Rot Grätli. The snow is confined to the shady northern valley; the top of the ridge and its entire southern flank are sun-drenched and completely snow-free. I find a flat rock a little way above the lowest point of the ridge, and settle down to have lunch and admire the view. 

At the Rot Grätli
The landscape on the southern side is very different from the valley up which I have climbed. For a start, the rock here is a brownish-red colour, and I can understand how the place got its "red ridge" name. The valley on this side is much broader, running westwards down towards Engelberg, its opposite flank a giant natural slag-heap of layered shale that rises up to a long line of vertical cliffs. To the east, the higher slopes above the valley are covered by the white Griessenfirn glacier, while the end of the valley is closed off by the Engelberger Rotstock and the Wissigstock, both summits close to 2,900 metres in altitude. As I sit there having lunch people come and go, most of them coming up from the southern side and going in the opposite direction from me: the route would certainly be more difficult going this way.

Time now for the descent towards Engelberg. The path drops down steeply but easily across brown stony slopes, then follows a series of broad, slabby ledges some way above the pathless valley floor. The brown rubble gives way to horizontal limestone pavements and then, very suddenly, the mineral landscape gives up the ghost and I am walking on grass again. The views from here are wonderful: the Titlis and its snowy satellites are up ahead, while the view back up valley towards the glaciers and the Rotstock becomes wider and more impressive with every step. 

Looking back up to the Rot Grätli from the path to the Rugghubelhütte
Forty-five minutes' walking from my lunch spot bring me to the Swiss Alpine Club's Rugghubelhütte, where there is another very sudden and dramatic change in the scenery. Here, the view back up towards the head of the valley disappears for good, hidden by the hill on top of which the hut is built. And up ahead, the valley comes to an abrupt end, plunging steeply and unexpectedly down towards Engelberg, more than a thousand metres below. Whereas my attention had been mainly held until now by the mountains and glaciers eastwards, from here onwards it's the panorama south and westwards that demands attention.

The view from the Rugghubelhütte isn't bad...
From the Rugghubelhütte, the path descends steeply towards the valley and the foot of the Rigidalstock, levelling out at Planggenstafel, 1964 metres, where it crosses a stream on a wooden bridge. Just upstream, two farm buildings are almost hidden beneath a pile of great boulders, the place no doubt chosen to offer protection from avalanches and rockfalls. Continuing westwards, the path now traverses almost horizontally above very steep cliffs that plunge way, way down into the valley of End der Welt. I was down there a couple of months ago, and remember looking up at these same cliffs and thinking "There's absolutely no way up there". Seen from above, this impression is more than confirmed: there is no way down either! This path is airy in places, and would require some care in slippery conditions: though the path is reasonably wide, there are any number of places where you would be ill advised to fall over the edge: the grass slopes above the vertical cliffs are steep, and it would be difficult to arrest a fall. 

The path below the Rugghubelhütte is airy
Gross Spannort and Klein Spannort, after which the street I live in is named
One final steep drop brings me to Rigidalstafel, where there is a rustic mountain restaurant. Beyond here, the remainder of the walk is on tarred farm roads which eventually bring me to the cable car station at Ristis. I could walk down to Engelberg in another hour, but I know the path well from previous visits and therefore feel justified in using the cable car instead. It has been a good weekend for cable cars; this is my fourth such ride of the weekend and, in contrast to the other three, this is a big, industrial-scale car built to carry 60 tourists at a time from Engelberg up to the viewpoints above. Five minutes later I an back down in the valley, a short walk from the village centre, the station and the conveniently-placed and sunny terrace of the Hotel Bellevue, where I enjoy a beer while waiting for the next train home. It has been a fantastic walk from start to finish, a fitting conclusion to a really excellent late summer weekend. 

27 September 2014

Sunny day, Sunnig Grat

Time: 4 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 860 metres
Height loss: 860 metres

Arnisee – Sunnig Grat – Langschälengrätli – Furt - Arnisee

Sunnig Grat, Sunny Ridge… the name says it all. September has done its usual magic, and has saved its best weather until last. At the very end of the worst summer that anyone here can remember, we are finally rewarded with an absolutely perfect weekend: not too hot, not too cold, not a cloud in the sky.

I get a crowded train to Erstfeld, first through a chilly-looking early morning landscape, with mist hanging over the lake and stretching in long thin bands along the steep sides of the Rigi. A short bus ride up the Gotthard pass road takes me to the roadside hamlet of Intschi. From here, one of those tiny cable cars that are to be found all over central Switzerland takes me 700 metres up the steep valley side to the Arnisee, passing over trees, fields and farmhouses on its way.

Surrounded by trees against a mountain backdrop at an altitude of 1370 metres, the Arnisee is a picture-postcard gem of a lake. It’s almost too good to be true, and I am not altogether surprised when I discover from an information board that it is a man-made lake, created in the 1920s as part of a local hydro-electric scheme. The lake is not very big, it only takes me a quarter of an hour or so to follow the muddy path that leads round to its far end, where a blue rowing-boat (rather oversized for the amount of water available to row on) adds another element to the foreground. The good weather has brought plenty of walkers out, and every ten minutes or so, the cable car delivers another eight people who soon disperse around the banks of the lake and its surrounding woodland.

The way up to the Sunnig Grat begins in the forest on the lake’s western side. The path is steep from the outset, climbing in tight zigzags, the blue water of the lake visible between the tall trunks of the trees, gradually receding. Underfoot, the path is often a mass of exposed tree-roots which, in wet weather, would make the going slippery. Even in the shade of the forest, the morning has quickly warmed up. I overtake two women who have stopped to remove excess layers of clothing: one of them, an attractive redhead, responds to my greeting with a whole speech in local dialect. Death threat or marriage proposal, she could have been making either; sadly, I understand nothing of what she says, so just smile and keep going.

At about 1750 metres, the path emerges above tree level, and the view opens out in all directions. Ahead of me, westwards, is the deep Leutschachtal valley, its far end closed by an imposing array of rock faces. To the north-west, beyond a foreground of alpenrose and autumn-brown heather, the Windgällen range is the main feature of a view that stretches up to the Hüfifirn glacier in the far distance above the Maderanertal. In a marshy hollow a little lake, nameless on the map, draws the eye towards this impressive backdrop.

A nameless little lake with the Windgällen in the background
It takes me about an hour and three quarters to reach the Sunniggrätli-Hutte, a little stone-built hut at the foot of the final climb to the ridge, overlooking yet another perfect mountain lake. Another quarter of an hour brings me onto the ridge itself, from where it is a short walk to the cross that marks the summit. The path along the ridge twists and turns over and around several rocky outcrops, dips down into a hollow, then climbs up the final steep, rocky step to the small summit. It is crowded here and, although it’s definitely time for lunch, I decide to find a more peaceful spot. I retrace my steps back down the ridge, then contour round above the hut until I come to a broad, flat area covered in heather and parched grass. 

A hundred metres or so off the path, I sit down on the grass to enjoy one of the best lunch breaks of the summer. Admittedly, the soup that I have made from leftover vegetables is not one of my finest: too salty, and given a rather odd, bitter taste by the predominant ingredient of cabbage. My sandwiches are tasty though, and the 45-minute siesta with which I follow them is a real delight. Lying there in the warm grass and daydreaming, I come very close to falling asleep, and I have to make a real effort at half past two to force myself back into action again.

A short but steep climb now takes me up to the ridge above my picnic place, the highest point of the walk at 2095 metres. The abrupt end of the ridge sticks out like the prow of a ship, offering vertiginous views down into the Leutschachtal way below. From this point, a stony path drops steeply down into the valley, first running across stony slopes below high cliffs, then twisting and turning more steeply down until it reaches the valley floor at the base of a rushing waterfall. A stony side valley runs steeply up from here towards the foot of the 3100-metre Krönten, sharp pinnacles of rock above steep slopes of snow. The sun has dipped behind one of the closer peaks, throwing half the valley into shadow and accentuating the bright, autumn colours of the still sunlit half.

On the path down into the Leutschachtal
Now I turn south-eastwards, following a broad track that follows the valley downhill back towards my starting point. Up ahead, the dominant feature of the view is the huge pyramid of the Bristen, its top dusted with what looks for all the world like icing sugar. The late afternoon light is beautiful, everything seems to have taken on an extra layer of colour which was absent earlier in the summer. Back at the Arnisee, families are picknicking on the grass beside the deep blue water. A large rock mimics the shape of the Bristen, which rises up in the background behind a row of conifers. 

The Arnisee and the Bristen
I stop at the restaurant at the top of the cable car for a refreshing beer on a sunny, panoramic terrace. After a pleasant half hour, it's time to get the little cable car back down into the valley. The cabin only takes eight people at a time: when I arrive, there are already three people in front of me, and a family of five arrives just behind me. I give up my place to allow the family to travel down together; after all, I will only have to wait seven minutes for the next one. In doing so though, I arrive down at the bottom one minute after the bus has left, and it looks very much like I will have a 59-minute wait for the next one and will be forced to have another beer. Fortunately, a German couple who were in the cable car with me offer me a lift down to the station at Erstfeld. I get carefully into their huge, new-looking Audi, trying very hard not to make any contact between my dirty shoes and the light beige upholstery of the seats. The couple is on holiday here from Munich, and as we drive down, I mention that I spent two rather rainy weeks hiking in Bavaria in August. Hearing this, the woman curiously asks me if I am retired. I think this is the first time someone has ever mistaken me for ten years older than I really am… still, it has been a perfect day, even if I will have to examine myself for grey hairs and wrinkles when I get home!

07 September 2014

A Sunday stroll from the Melchsee to the Engstlensee

Time: 4 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 350 metres
Height loss: 350 metres

Melchsee-Frutt – Tannensee – Tannalp – Engstlenalp – Engstlensee and back

A more gentle walk today, after yesterday's excursion to the Sidelhorn. A friend from work has a weekend guest from Germany, and they want to do something easy but scenic. I have a ticket for a concert at four in the afternoon, and am also happy to something short and not too strenuous. This pleasant walk is part of the well-known "four lakes walk" which starts from Melchsee-Frutt and goes to Engelberg via a series of mountain lakes: Melchsee, Tannensee, Engstlensee and Trüebsee. For time and logistic reasons, we decide to amputate the last of the four lakes, and do our own "three lakes" variation. We go by car to Stöckalp, and take the cable-car up to Melchsee-Frutt, where the temperature is significantly higher than the forecast would have us believe. Our German visitor came without hiking equipment, but my friend has lent her an old pair of boots which should be more than good enough for such an easy walk. 

The Melchsee is a lovely lake, provided you avoid looking at the ugly resort buildings that disfigure its northern edge. Looking towards its southern side, white cumulus clouds are reflected in the still surface of the water, with a backdrop of sombre mountains still wreathed in darker overnight clouds that have not yet cleared. A notice wards us that the path to the Tannensee has suffered from this summer's rainy weather, and that it is "sodden" and only suitable for those with good footwear. True, the path is vaguely muddy in places, but it is still among the drier surfaces on which I have walked this year!

Leaving the pylons and cables of the ski area behind, we climb gently uphill along a marshy valley where the colours already suggest that autumn is not far away, and soon come to our second lake, the Tannensee. This is an artificial lake, its western end blocked by a low, grass-covered dam, across which we walk to follow the lake's southern bank. Fishermen are standing on rocks here, enjoying their hobby in what, it has to be said, is an absolutely perfect location: what more could one wish for as a backdrop while waiting for a bite? 

At the far end of the lake, we walk past the restaurant, the whitewashed chapel and the few houses at Tannalp, then begin the descent to our third lake, the Engstlensee. This is the most "mountainous" part of the route, as the path works its way down a steep rock face, using a grassy band between cliffs that rear up above and plunge down below. The way down is secured with a cable, although the path is a metre or more wide and not in any way dangerous. Down below, the lovely Gental valley runs away westwards towards the peaks of the Bernese Oberland, still shrouded in cloud but doing their best to break through.

The path from Tannalp down to Engstlenalp
At this point, a very odd thing happens. Those of you who read this blog regularly will remember that last weekend, one of my hiking partners lost the sole of her right boot in the middle of a hike. I had never seen this happen before: now it happens again. Our German visitor's borrowed hiking boots, which have not been worn for two years, decide to self-destruct. Not only does the sole of her right boot fall off very suddenly: ten minutes later, the same thing happens to the other boot. The only common denominator I can find in all this is my friend from the office, present on both occasions. I will have to be very careful next time we go hiking together!

With botched-up boots, we continue to Engstlenalp and its hotel. I was last here in August 2010 in horribly wet conditions; it's nice to see the place in sunlight today. As we walk up the hill towards the lake, I point out the annexe where I had my poltergeist incident while walking the Alpine Pass Route four years ago.

To get the best views of the Engstlensee would mean walking up to its far and, which we cannot be bothered to do, so we just have a quick look at its blue-green water and the pretty reflections made by the trees on the far side, before returning to the Hotel Engstlenalp for lunch. My two companions have Rösti with cheese and fried eggs respectively; I go for a "Käseschnitte mit Zwiebeln, Speck und Ei", a delicious and totally unhealthy mixture of melted cheese, ham, and onions on a bread base, baked in the oven and topped with a fried egg and picked vegetables. All washed down with beer, it goes without saying. Mmmmm… 

Looking across to the Bernese Oberland from Tannalp
I am feeling far too happy with life by now to want to rush back for my concert, so we decide to take the rest of the afternoon slowly. This is probably a good thing, as the initial climb back up from Engstlenalp to Tannalp is quite a challenge with such full stomachs. Additional bits and pieces continue to fall off the borrowed boots, and one of the soles is discarded in a litter bin. We decide to stay on the road for the rest of the way back: at least our visitor will be walking on a dry, flat surface and will not have to contend with mud seeping in and stones breaking through the internal foam which has now become the external layer of her footwear. 

A hint of autumn
The light is completely different now compared to this morning, with the late afternoon sun accentuating the autumnal atmosphere. We arrive back at Melchsee-Frutt at four o'clock: twenty kilometres away in Lucerne my concert is starting, but I really don't mind at all.

06 September 2014

September on the Sidelhorn

Time: 4 hours
Grading: T3
Height gain: 700 metres
Height loss: 700 metres

Grimselpass – Husegghütte – Sidelhorn – Triebtenseeli - Grimselpass

Ah, September at last! My favourite month for walking in the mountains, with all its promise of crisp mornings, limpid air and colours accentuated by the lower sun. As if to confirm my optimism, the month has started with a whole weekend of perfect hiking weather, a real rarity this summer.

Today's walk brings me to my highest point of the summer. The Sidelhorn is a dark pyramid of rock set up above the Grimselpass, right on the border between the Bernese Oberland and Valais. I start by getting an early train from Lucerne over the Brünigpass to Meiringen. On the almost empty train, a railway employee is working his way through the carriage, emptying the litter-bins into a big black dustbin bag. Having just thrown away a paper coffee cup, I helpfully retrieve it from the bin and hand it to the man to save him the effort. He tut-tuts annoyedly, makes me put my coffee cup back in the bin… then takes the bin and empties it into his big black bag. Oh well, at least I tried…

In Meiringen (which I am amused to learn is called "Meringue" in French), I change to a post bus that climbs up the Haslital valley, then winds its way up numerous hairpins to reach the Grimselpass at 2,164 metres. Starting the walk at such a high altitude may not be common, but it does have its advantages, not least the fact that the summit is only 600 metres higher up.

The pass is not the loveliest of places, it has to be said. Crossed by a major road, it is popular with motorists and motorcyclists out for a drive, and as such is a crowded and noisy place. The area is also used intensely for hydro-electric power generation, and a fair number of dams and pylons add another level of human intrusion to the landscape. Even without all this human intervention, the Grimsel would be a barren place: there is not a tree in sight, the only green in the landscape is provided by the lichen that has attached itself to the rock.

The Totesee, at the Grimselpass
Leaving the bustle of the pass, I set off as soon as I have finished plastering myself with sun cream, climbing quickly above the lugubriously-named Totesee (or "dead lake"). The path is steep and rough from the outset, climbing in tight zigzags up and away from the pass, the noise of the traffic gradually diminishing but never quite disappearing altogether. In many places, large flat stones have been laid on the path to form semi-natural staircases; in other places, the way up crosses huge, easily-angled slabs of light grey rock. Behind me, to the east, wisps of cloud cling to the wall of mountains bordering the Haslital: somewhere behind those mountains is the immense whiteness of the Trift glacier and the high Alpine territory that stretches away to the Dammastock. Ahead and below me, the milky grey-green waters of the Grimselsee look cold and impenetrable. In a marshy hollow, a little pool bordered with cotton grass makes an attractive foreground for a photo of the mountains away beyond the lake.

Not far above this pool, at an altitude of 2,441 metres, I reach the Husegghütte, a long, low stone hut set up on a hump as if to make the most of the views to the north and the east. Here, for the first time, the giants of the Bernese Oberland come into view, most prominent among them being the Lauteraarhorn, standing out from the rest by being covered in what looks like recently fallen snow. The Sidelhorn, my destination, also comes properly into view now. The way up is clear: the mountain's north-east ridge runs almost down to where I am standing. Clear maybe… easy certainly not, as the ridge looks steep, dark and forbidding.

The summit of the Sidelhorn. The route follows the ridge from right to left.
Oberaar glacier
In reality though, there are no particular difficulties between here and the summit. The way up becomes increasingly rocky, but there is almost always a clear path to follow. The last 50 metres or so are the steepest: here, the use of the hands is needed for me to hoist myself up some big rocky steps. There is no real danger though, the ridge is not in any way exposed, and it proves to be an entertaining little scramble to reach the summit with its big, iron cross.

The top
The view from the Sidelhorn's summit is amazing, looking as it does right into the heart of two of the Bernese Oberland's wildest glacial valleys. To the west is the snow-covered Oberaar glacier, running down to the lake of the same name. Further north, beyond the end of the Grimselsee, the mostly rubble-covered Lauteraar glacier runs almost flat deep into the heart of the mountains, surrounded by the Oberland's highest peaks.

Lateraarhorn and Lauteraar glacier
The rocky summit of the Sidelhorn is crowded on this sunny Saturday, so does not make for an especially peaceful place for lunch. There is a large group up here with seven or eight young children, which of course generates a fair bit of noise. "Caroline, don't go over there, it's dangerous!" "Manuel, take that sandwich over to Annina!" "Aaron, do you want a piece of chocolate? Yes, I know you don't like milk chocolate, this is plain!" "Caroline, I said DON'T go over there"… and so on. It's too rocky for a siesta anyway – there is not a square metre that isn't covered by sharp rock – so I finish my sandwiches and set off down the south-west ridge.

This is a somewhat more serious prospect than the ridge by which I came up. On the way up, there was always a path of sorts. Here, there is nothing but a chaos of boulders, as though the world's biggest dumper truck had emptied a vast load of rubble on top of the mountain. Although there is no danger of falling over the edge of any precipices, the going is painfully slow. Finding footholds and handholds is not always easy, in fact just working out where to go next is not always easy. Many of the rocks are unstable, getting from one to the next sometimes involves a big stretch, and in more than one place, big holes in between boulders await unwary legs. It takes me a slow, careful half an hour to reach the saddle at 2,689 metres from where an easier path branches off to the right. 

The south-west ridge is a chaos of boulders
Easier maybe, but still uncomfortable, the path drops down steeply through loose rubble towards the little Triebtenseeli, whose dark blue water contrasts surprisingly with the milky glacial meltwater of the bigger Grimselsee just behind. Now the going becomes much easier: above the lake I find a good path which runs eastwards below the northern slopes of the Sidelhorn, back towards my starting point. Climbing steadily at first, the path soon levels out and eventually brings me back to the Husegghütte. I have an hour to make it back down to the Grimselpass before the bus leaves: half an hour proves to be enough. A short walk maybe – only four hours – but one which has posed one or two technical challenges and which, for the first time this summer, has given me the impression of having reached a proper mountain summit.

Contrasting lakes